Cré na Cille or The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain was originally published in 1949, but has only recently become available in English for the first time, translated from its original Irish as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters. This exciting new translation makes the wit, charm and brilliance of the original novel accessible to the wide audience that it truly deserves. Alan Titley, the translator of Cré na Cille, shares with us the challenge of doing the book justice.
ON TRANSLATING CRÉ NA CILLE/THE DIRTY DUST
by Alan Titley
Ireland may be hugely infamous for many things, one of the least harmful being having won the Eurovision song contest more often than any other country. A real cause of some pride might be that Irish literature is the longest continuous vernacular literature in Europe with the exception of Greece. Irish literature in this context is that which is written in the Irish language, which is one of the Gaelic languages, and not a form of Hiberno-English much mangled by writers attempting to attain ‘authenticity’ in their depiction of country life.
Máirtín Ó Cadhain is widely recognized as the greatest writer of prose in Irish in the 20th century. He never heard English spoken until he was six years of age, received little formal education, and finished his life holding the chair of Irish in Trinity College Dublin. He was a formidable speaker, a militant republican, a great teacher, an indefatigable activist and a writer who penned stories, novels, propaganda and polemics with great gusto.
All of these traits we cannot but encounter in his most famous novel Cré na Cille which title literally translated might mean ‘graveyard clay’ more than the title which I have given it. It is a novel told almost entirely through talk, as conversation might give the impression that they were always listening to one another. Every character in the novel is dead, laid in their graves not far from the sea-shore in Connemara on the west coast of Ireland. While the introduction says that the time of the novel is ‘forever’, which in a sense it is, it is more properly rooted in the 1940s.
The problem of translation was getting a suitable idiom to mirror the talk of these dead – but very much alive people in their speech – and to give it in an English which matched, as far as possible, their manic energy, their hatred of one another, their wonderful bitchy and bastardy small-mindedness, their gutsy grumblings, their sly asides, their broad humour, their petty put-downs, their curses and imprecations, their poetic bad language, their grousing gossip, their full unwaxed take on the lives they had lived and the death which continued their never-ending obsessions. Their gabbling in the graveyard.
This had its problems, not so much that the registers of Irish use had declined over the previous two hundred years, but because Máirtín Ó Cadhain had a vocabulary drawn from every Irish dialect, some Scottish ones, and from his wide reading of literature. While the language is determinedly that of his own place, and the main characters never speak anything that would not have been understood in his own native area, he has no compunction to add and to elaborate and to invent and to play linguistic word games. He can employ a different register for people from a different class (which was unusual in Irish), and provide a signature tune of cliché for many of his characters.
More problematic for me was trying to match Irish with English. There has long been a tradition when translating from Irish to English to revert to some kind of submonkey Synge-speak. It turns good people into peasants, wisdom into smartassedness, and ordinary natural talk into exotic jabber. The people in this novel were ordinary people, with their own wisdom and their talk was fully natural. But they did speak with verve and with venom and with love and with lusciousness.
I tried to use the copious resources of English to meet the needs of the vasty depths of Irish. There was really no other way.
Alan Titley, a novelist, story writer, playwright, and scholar, writes a weekly column for The Irish Times on current and cultural matters.
Feature image is courtesy of Jandrowulf